Diet and Exercise: The Under-Prescribed Mental Health ‘Cure’

Go to your doctor for any medical condition, say, high blood pressure or cholesterol, and you’ll likely be asked about your lifestyle choices — what foods you eat, how much and how often you exercise, and what your sleeping habits are, all known factors in controlling many diseases. And the same holds true for mental illness. Yet according to a recent study, the medical community still has a long way to go in looking at a holistic picture of health when it comes to mental health, relying heavily instead on medications. We delved into why this may be, and what patients can do about it.

‘A Pill for Every Ill’ Philosophy

More than half of patients with symptoms of mental illness were not counseled about exercise and diet, according to a new study conducted by the University of Illinois and published in Diabetes Educator. Because those with mental illness have higher rates of conditions such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, the lack of education about lifestyle changes could have a snowball effect, leading to further problems down the road. It also neglects an important part of mental illness treatment: lifestyle factors.

Haley Gage, MAPC, LAPC, a therapist in Atlanta, Georgia, has witnessed this firsthand. She often sees patients diagnosed with mental illness who are on medication but haven’t been coached on lifestyle issues. “Clinicians are often diving in immediately to address the primary concern — whether it’s depression, schizophrenia, or anxiety — with medication and quick treatment, and they overlook simple lifestyle changes that are equally beneficial,” she says. “For those with anxiety or depression, simple aspects like setting a predictable sleep schedule can go a long way toward helping their condition.”

In the clinical setting, the emphasis is on the medical issue. Lifestyle issues take a backseat. “I believe it’s overlooked because it’s often thought of as ‘common sense’ and that naturally people should know to exercise, sleep, and eat well, but unfortunately, that’s not the case,” she says. “That’s why lifestyle is something I stress in my practice and is one of the very first questions I ask when I see a new patient, because if factors like exercise, sleep, and diet aren’t in line, it will throw everything else off, too.”

From Medication to Meditation: How It Works

It’s important to recognize that medication in and of itself isn’t the enemy. After all, it can help to stabilize an acute episode, or provide relief long-term, and you can’t argue with that. It’s when medication — and only medication — is prescribed that the problem comes into play.

Bill Dinker should know. Diagnosed with bipolar disease, he was prescribed a dizzying list of medications. “I was a walking zombie, sleeping 13 to 15 hours a day and gained nearly 60 pounds,” says the director of admissions at Discovery Place treatment center in Nashville, Tennessee. It wasn’t until a family member sat him down and convinced him to get off medication that he knew he needed a change.  With the help of a counselor, Dinker dedicated himself to making serious lifestyle changes.  “What worked for me is that he met me where I was, rather than trying to push his brand of treatment on me,” he says.

First stop was getting sober. Second stop was analyzing his diet, and deciding to eliminate red meat, and dairy, and add in fish oil. Then he incorporated mindful meditation into his daily routine (twice a day for 20 minutes). It worked.

Be Your Own Best Advocate

If you’ve been diagnosed with a mental illness, or are experiencing symptoms such as anxiety or depression, remember that there’s help out there: seek a counselor’s help to monitor your lifestyle and suggest an individualized approach that works for you. “A counselor can help you take a broader look at your life and help you see the forest through the trees,” says Gage. Together, you can devise a plan and — if needed — pair up with a nutritionist and/or personal trainer to help you make a new plan and stick with it.

Experts predict that in the next decade, huge strides will continue to be made in holistic mental health treatment, but in the meantime, you, like Dinker, may need to be proactive to get the help you need. Once you do, though, the results speak for themselves: He’s now been symptom-free from bipolar disease for three years, and it’s a similar story for those he’s seen at the clinic. “For those who are willing to make significant lifestyle changes, we see them making significant gains,” he says.

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